Friday, October 31, 2014

Let God Almighty Change Your Eternity


If you consider the will of God when you look into the future, then you belong to a small minority. The larger part of our people have no regard for God at all. While they are outwardly modest, perhaps even timid souls, possessing some personal humility, they have learned to put a completely unjustifiable confidence in collective mankind. That trust has had sour results. So our society gets blindsided by evil events, from shootings in high schools to worse and worse anti-freedom legislation, and to the systematic plundering of our country by predatory trial lawyers. We can never be free of such onslaughts, neither  can we predict the future, but we can call upon God to become part of our national life. I doubt that the majority would join us in this, but at least we, who know what's going on, can intercede for our people, our leaders, our varied educational systems, our military, and our poor cities. We can hold them up to God, asking Him to focus His attention on them in mercy, that they might do His will.

In the Psalm, David had just been blindsided by his own flesh. First he had allowed sexual lust and coveting to lead him to adultery. His partner in this tryst was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, which should be of special interest to us, because of all David's partners, she would be the one through whom we trace the Messiah's pedigree. Yes, Jesus was who he was partly because of David's adultery. When she became with child, David attempted a simple cover-up, but it turned out to be more complicated. In the end, he resorted to murder to solve his problem. His membership in Israel did not protect him. His anointing as God's elect king did not protect him. Indeed, the devil gets peculiar pleasure from corrupting those who guard the Lord's name. Did that shake David up? Hardly! He still ate like a schoolboy and slept like a baby. He was confident in himself, certain that he could control the situation. So before He could help David, God had to demolish that confidence.

He elected the prophet Nathan. The prophet would preach the Law, using an appropriate parable. If you want to follow it, turn to II Samuel 12 -- a rich man and a poor man lived by each other; the rich man had many animals, but the poor man had only a single ewe lamb, which he treated like a pet, a companion to him and his children. One day the rich man had company, so he took the poor man's lamb and killed it to serve it to his company. When David heard that he grew very angry, and threatened to kill the rich man in the parable. But the stinger was about to come. Nathan pointed his finger at David and said, You are the man. Now David did have a conscience. That was all the prompting it needed. Psalm 51 is an ongoing testimony to his contrition. Notice he doesn't make any excuses for himself. He doesn't try to argue that he's really a victim. He doesn't plead any exceptional situation. Instead he says, I have sinned against the Lord, and in the Psalm he says, You are correct when You judge me, I have sinned against You, I have done what You hate, I am guilty of blood. Now where is David's confidence? No longer in himself. So now Nathan pronounces words of discipline. The sword would not depart from David's house, the child resulting from David's lack of self-control would die. This was not a threat. The events Nathan announced were inevitable. David's bravado was gone. The Scriptures describe him as having a sanguine personality, but now he was in deep depression.

Does that remind you of our society? Like David, we have come face to face with our sinfulness in all its sordid forms - evil desire, misconduct, deception, over-confidence, violence, and then despair. The first step is to face up to the evil in ourselves. We must cut through the entangling web of excuses we spin before the world. Then we have to face God's judgment upon it. Reduced to that condition, it's easy to see the one thing needful, that we must be born again, kill the Old Adam, and drink from the Fountain of Life.

Then we need to look at David again. Is this another, new confidence in the same, old David? Yes, but this time he is confident that God will not reject a penitent whose heart is broken by its own unworthiness. We also need that kind of cleansing, purging with the hyssop of the holy Gospel, washing in the water of redemption, being baptized into the death and resurrection of the Son of David, who pours into our souls the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. How can this be? How can God turn your contrition into new spiritual life? The answer is in the book of the Prophet Zechariah, chapter 12 and 13. The house of David will look on Him whom they have pierced and mourn for Him … on that day a Fountain will be opened to cleanse them from sin and impurity. As you probably have figured out, the Fountain results from the piercing. Jesus of Nazareth fulfills these Scriptures. When He was pierced, the Fountain of Life flowed out. We know this because He was raised from the dead, even as Isaiah had foretold - He shall see the fruit of His agonizing labor, yes, He would harvest the souls for whom He laid down His life. The cross, my friends, the cross gives us what the Psalm so urgently requests - a new heart, a right spirit, the joy of salvation. By God's marvelous design, Jesus of Nazareth was a descendant of Solomon, the second child to result from the union of David with Uriah's wife. The Fountain cleansed His own ancestors with forgiveness.

What else happened to David? First of all, he continued on as king. God had chosen and anointed him, no one could impeach him, because that would be setting God's covenant aside. Just as Aaron was allowed to become high priest in spite of his shameful role in fashioning the golden calf, so David continued in both offices as king of Judah and Israel. He would bring sacrifices of joy, thank-offerings to the God who saved him. Some day he would fall asleep in peace, and inherit the kingdom of eternal life, but there would be consequences. The sword would not depart from David's house. Nathan did not put any ifs in his pronouncements. Both the Law and the Gospel were certain. The discipline was inevitable, but it was also a cross, which David could take up without losing the joy of salvation. God had canceled his guilt. He looked forward with confidence to an everlasting crown.  AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E.Gross

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Did you get yourself into a situation and believe that you have only yourself to get you out?


Incline O my God your ear and hear; open your eyes and see our appalling desolations, and those of the City that is called by your Name. For we do not lay our supplications before you because of righteousness within ourselves, but because of Your Great Mercy. O Lord hear; O Lord pardon; O Lord pay careful attention and take action! Delay not Oh my God for your own sake, because your City and your People are called by your name! Daniel 9:18-19

Rarely is there only one way to solve a problem, one way to get a thing done, one way to get from here to there. When business at the Elcortez Hotel in San Diego became so good that they needed another bank of elevators all the executives were stumped.  Customers were getting frustrated with the long wait to get in and out, and it was clear that things could not go on as they were; but neiether could the hotel afford to close for the months it would take to construct another bank of lifts.  One day a member of the housekeeping crew overheard two executives discussing the problem and asked why they didn’t just construct the elevators on the outside of the building, and make them out of glass so that people could not only get around more quickly, but enjoy the view as well.  The rest is history.

Yes, when it comes to solving problems there are usually many ways to skin a cat, but not so in the divine matters.  Not so when we are talking about the One Eternal God whom earth and heaven adore.  People might deal with false gods, imaginary gods or gods created by the consensus of men in any manner they like, but there is only one posture that “works” with the living God, and Daniel demonstrates it for us in today’s Old Testament lesson.  That posture is humility, which is the very opposite of self-righteousness.

Daniel, who spent most of his life in captivity, knew something about humility.  He was just a young boy when the Babylonians took him from his home in Judah and carried him off to Babylon where he was forced to remain for 70 years, but even under these less-than-ideal circumstance God exceptionally blessed him.  The Spirit of God enabled him to interpret dreams that no one else could interpret, and to solve knotty problems that no one else could solve (5:12), problems that flummoxed even the wisest men of Babylon.  His abilities were so remarkable that word swiftly reached Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and Daniel was promptly elevated to a position in the court of the most splendid and mighty king earth has ever known.  This was no bed of roses because whenever a person rises above the rest, he becomes a target for the envy of everyone below.  However, through it all Daniel maintained a humble attitude and an unwavering faith in the God of Israel, to whom he openly prayed and whose name he plainly confessed before kings, even when threatened with death in the lion’s den.

We too are in captivity.   Like Daniel we are subject to the decrees of kings, many of which are irrational and designed to manipulate us, to force us into doing things we don’t want to do.  We, too, are ridiculed and rejected by the culture even as Daniel was, because of our high calling as baptized children of God, as citizens of a heavenly country; because of our faith that the blood of the crucified Son of God takes away our sins, and supplies us with the Righteousness we need to stand justified before God.  Perhaps the day will come when we will have to answer for our faith with our lives like Daniel did, but even then we should learn from this Prophet to maintain a posture of humble trust and dependence upon God.

We have other problems as well.  Because of the Old Adam who dwells within we are also captive to sin.  We suffer guilt and regret whenever we disregard God’s Word and return like dogs to the vomit of our old ways.  To make matters worse our faults often lead to troubling consequences; to the anger and displeasure of those whom we have harmed; to hardship, poverty, loss of affection and in extreme cases to the ER or even the back seat of a police car.  Yes we know better, but the Flesh hounds us day and night, so we need to learn from Daniel to put any notions of self-righteousness out of our minds, and to depend on Christ’s righteousness and His alone for a good conscience, and for help in every trouble, even those of our own making, and God, who is filled with mercy and compassion, will do this for us. On this you can rely.

As He vindicated His people after seven decades of captivity by restoring them to the land He had promised their fathers; as He vindicated our Lord Jesus Christ from all that sinful men, the devil or the grave could do to Him by raising Him from the dead; in like manner He vindicates us!  He hears our humble confession and graciously pardons our sins by the words of absolution spoken into our ears, and the body and blood of Christ placed on our lips – which dissolves all of our sins, shatters all of our sorrows, and assures us that God is our dear Father, and we His dear children.

He pays close attention to our prayers and turns the world upside down on our behalf, even as He did in response to Daniel’s prayer at the end of Judah’s seventy year sentence.  He acts on our behalf; sends the streams of His mercy to uphold us and is always at work resolving our problems in ways we could never imagine and settling our troubled minds.  All of this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us, for all which it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him, this is most certainly true.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Plan and manage so you won't find yourself out of a place in the middle of the desert


For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 1 Corinthians. 10:1-6

It is easier to go down the stairs than up, to spend money than to save it and to gain weight than to lose it. In the same way it is easier to misunderstand today’s epistle than to properly interpret it, so as we meditate on the lesson today let us avoid the errors and confess the truths that St. Paul wants us to learn from it.

First we must proclaim that the sacraments Paul speaks of here are the grace of God! That statement drives our flesh buggy, but it is none-the-less true. We have learned to call them the means of grace and to think of them as the conduits by which God’s mercy comes to us. They are all of that but not only that. They are indeed, grace personified! Personified because they do not only point to Christ but contain Him and transmit the full benefits of redeeming love to us. If we want to know the love of God we cannot fall down at the foot of the cross like the repentant centurion did, he who came to crucify but remained to glorify. 

We cannot travel back in time and space to the empty tomb, and hear the Lord’s voice speak our name and banish all fear as He did for Mary. Instead if we want to be sure that we are going to heaven when we die and not hell, then we must open our ears to the preaching of the Gospel, and our minds to believe what the Bible says about the sacraments. We must not think that because they consist of humble elements they are mundane because St. Paul tells us that God loves to hide great treasures in ordinary packages. Take the computer chip as an example. In the span of a few decades it has revolutionized life on earth. It is the greatest labor saving device ever invented and were it to fail, all the means of modern production and distribution would die and so would most of us. But this humble little contrivance is not composed of valuable jewels or precious metals. Instead, like man himself, it is made from the dust of the ground (silica).

Now consider Christ. In order to redeem us God did not arrange a galactic spectacle such as you might see at the Imax theater. Instead He chose the whip, the thorns, the nails and the cross. He chose the most shameful and protracted death a man could die, and by it vanquished death forever. And when our Lord was raised to life it was not a production for stage and screen, or flashed across the globe on the internet like the BP oil leak. But rather in the stillest hour of earliest morning Christ Jesus rose from death’s strong bands – His victory witnessed by none but a few policemen who had never been so scared in their lives. This is how God works! Not to show us how clever He is, but to teach us how foolish we are, who think that we can live our lives without Him.

Neither must we think that we are the key players in the sacraments. Holy communion is not named the “church’s supper” but the “Lord’s supper” because it is Christ’s from beginning to end. He is the victim and the priest, the host and servant, the doer and the giver – and we the grateful and needy receivers. The same is true in the baptism. The pastor applies the water and the pastor says the words, but God Himself is the One who delivers us from evil by it.

Second let us be certain that the sacraments are not a license to do what we please, but instead the true and effectual cure for the deadly cancer of sin. We should not tempt God or abuse His mercy. The old man within us is conniving. He wants to see how much he can get away with and how little it will cost him. He loves to work the system. He reasons that if the sacraments are all that scripture says that they are, then he can safely enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, and play his holy trump card should he get into trouble. It is to this stiff-necked, hard-headed old man who resides in each of us, that St. Paul says: God scattered their dead bodies over the face of the desert.

Does this sound as if Paul is qualifying the certainty of the sacraments in some way? That he is adding ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to God’s promises? That some special experience or commitment is needed if we are to be REAL Christians? A person might conclude that, but only if he concludes that scripture is about us instead of Christ, but it is not. The scriptures testify of Him. They teach us who He is, and what He has done to atone for our wrongs and enable us to believe it as well. They teach us that He is the Rock that accompanied Israel in her wilderness wanderings and who accompanies us in ours. Now as then He provides us with all we need for both body and soul, and gives us victory over the sorrow of sin that would otherwise break us into pieces. He does not merely provide a way of escape for troubled souls, but He Himself is our escape; our way out from under the guilt, judgment and punishment that sin always imposes on those commit it. He does not merely enable us to endure under the trials and temptations of life but He Himself is our endurance. It’s hard to fight sin, hard to be patient, hard to crucify our insatiable sinful desires. We get tired. We become impatient and are convinced that we will not be able to hold it together for even a few minutes, much less ‘one day at a time.’ Paul’s message to us today is that the Savior who comes to us in the word and sacraments is the solid Rock on which we stand, that He is our Escape and our Endurance. And St. John tells us in His first epistle that: Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as He is pure. We are those people, made pure by baptismal water, and made eternally alive by His word, His flesh and His blood. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, October 20, 2014

Jesus said that John was the greatest man that ever lived, yet John pointed to someone greater


And all the people, greatly expectant, were asking in their hearts, whether John might be the Messiah. John answered them all saying, "I baptize you with water, but the One is coming who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Luke 3:15-16

John the Baptizer made a good confession that day when he said, "…the coming One is mightier than I." It was quite a statement because John was no lightweight. According to Jesus, John was the greatest man ever to live, right up to our Lord's own coming.

No person ever had such divine fuss made about his birth. St. Luke reports that an angel appeared to Zechariah, John's father, and told him that though the couple was well beyond child-bearing age, his wife would bear a son. Nor would he be any ordinary child, but instead a great and mighty prophet of God who would prepare Israel to meet the now-arriving Messiah! Zechariah was told what to name him, and given a detailed account of the work that he would do. And it was the occasion of John's birth that inspired the Benedictus, the canticle that we still sing today to comfort ourselves in all that distresses us. (The Lutheran Hymnal ©1941 p.38)

John's life was special, too. From birth this theological prodigy was groomed for only one task: to call sinners to repentance, and to faith in the long-awaited Christ who would appear at any moment.

His work was also extraordinary. He was a charismatic preacher instructed by God to set up shop in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley, the most inhospitable and inaccessible place in the land, but however user-unfriendly the locale St. Luke reports that the people could not stay away. They came in record number from Jerusalem and all of Judea, and from every walk of life; and when they heard his message they believed it. They repudiated their old ways, they were baptized, pardoned of their crimes against heaven and showed forth the fruits of a repentant life.

But if John's life and ministry were singular so was his death. He ran afoul of Herod, the petty but powerful ruler, who imprisoned him and eventually handed him his head on a plate, and not even Jesus who knew of his situation intervened to save him, because this too was the plan of God who raises the dead!

That was John, the greatest man ever to live right up to the birth of our Lord, who would not be flattered by the Messianic hopes that people were pinning on Him. John understood who he was, but he understood even better who Jesus was. When people wanted to proclaim John the Savior he said this: "I baptize you with water, but the Coming One who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."

It's an odd thing John says here about the sandals. It has been interpreted as a sign of his humility but that’s not what he was saying. For over a thousand years there was a custom in Israel that when a man was making a contract with another man he went to the city gates, gathered ten witnesses, took off his sandal and handed it to the other party as a sign that the deal was cemented. Boaz, the great great grandfather of David and distant ancestor of Jesus, did that in order to obtain a tract of land in a little town called Bethlehem: and with it to redeem a poor widow whom he loved, whose name was Ruth, and to make her his wife. When John stated that he was not worthy to untie the Lord's sandals he was saying that he was not capable of redeeming a single soul. Instead he points sinners of all ages to Jesus who, like His ancestor Boaz, loved us, redeemed us and made us His holy bride. He gave His sandal for us, only it was not that simple. In order to make sinners holy our Lord had to make the most wondrous transaction of all: God became man. It's no accident that we genuflect or reverently bow our heads at these words, "and became man." The Creator made Himself creature and subjected Himself to the Law; and by the cross He conquered sin, removed death's sting, and won eternal victory over the grave for us. John the Baptizer could not do this. We cannot do this for ourselves; nor can the many messiahs who are always promising to save us and to give us a better life.

Not even the church can do that. The most the church can do, and it is no small thing, is what John did. She preaches the word of God, and baptizes all who the Spirit calls and gathers. She daily washes us clean from the ongoing sins of the flesh, and nourishes us with the Lord's holy Flesh and Blood, making us One with Him. She also instructs and enables us to produce the fruits of repentance. There are many such fruits which we learn fully in the catechisms, but John focuses on one species: the good work of sharing this world's goods with those who have none. The church says to all of her sons: let him who has two coats give one to the person who has none. To God's people in public office and in positions of power she says: don't extort money from people, don't falsely accuse the innocent of wrong, and be content with your wages.

Though our circumstances are different from John's the lesson is the same: be generous. Take note of the need of others, and quietly take care of it because our needs have been generously met by the One who was baptized for us, in the blood of the cross. By His death, we are purified and made to shine like refined silver. Whatever we might look like to the world, or to the mirror, because of Jesus we are to be pure and blameless: the wheat of God separated from the chaff by the Messiah who gave His sandal for us. To Him alone be all might and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, October 16, 2014

If we are going to be honest, do we really want a devout will?


Almighty, everlasting God, make us to have always a devout will toward Thee and to serve Thy Majesty with a pure heart; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth, and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Let's give our attention to this morning's Collect, the prayer that comes before the readings.  We have come before our ascended Lord and asked Him for a devout will.  Do we really want this?  Do we all understand the kind of dynamite we're requesting?  Perhaps a few minutes ago the Collect was just words, but who is willing to take the risk that God might be listening anyway?  St. Augustine is famous for praying, God, make me chaste, gradually.  We can identify with that -- all pious pretensions aside.  In that Collect there is no hint that we are looking for a slowly-developing devoutness.  We want Jesus to draw us to Himself, and thus to draw us to the Father, conforming us always to His image.

One thing is clear; we don't think our wills are already devout.  Hardly!  Our wills are under judgment for their waywardness.  In the Tenth Commandment God forbids us to want our neighbor's wife, servants, or animals, but we need to take this Law a step further.  It is not enough to avoid wanting what belongs to another.  Is there anything that is yours now which you are not willing to give up?  Being devout means far more than being honest.  What if Jesus asked you to give up your television set, your fur coat, your Corvette?  Lest there be any confusion, I am not suggesting that Jesus would come to you looking as if He just stepped out of Leonardo da Vinci's painting, and asked you to give something up.  He is far more likely to take the form of a person whom you could really help by giving up something that is dear to you.  Could you make that choice?  If God granted your petition from today's Collect, you would gladly part with it.

Does that sound unnatural?  Think about it.  Did Jesus come into this world to make us what we already were?  The New Testament assures us that He came to redeem us from sin, to rescue us from death and the devil, and to make us holy.  Our natural will delights in sin.  Solomon the wise tell us, Folly abides in the heart of a child… It is far more than just folly.  It is wickedness.  Some people who call themselves evangelicals teach that children are not accountable to God until they reach a certain age.  The New Testament says otherwise.  St. Paul tells us in Romans 3 that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God.  The Old Testament agrees.  In Noah's day God said that the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth, and David laments that he was conceived a sinner.  God does indeed require more from those who have been given more, but that does not mean that nothing is required of the very young.  If you want your children to be righteous, they must be born again of water and the Spirit.

But don't we have faith?  Doesn't that make a difference?  Dear people, it makes a huge difference.  As long as that faith lives the Holy Spirit purifies the heart and sanctifies the will.  Sometimes it happens very slowly, which would please St. Augustine.  Faith has to hate sin, and there are some sins it has to learn to hate, corrupting sins, cherished sins that are our little pets.  They may be nothing but a cut-down stump, but even a cut-down stump can send up suckers.  We call it the Old Adam.  In all of us the Old Adam is a cut-down stump, but the stump is still there.  And what does it stir up?  A smidgen of vanity, a slightly dishonest windfall - like a tip we know is too big, a wasted weekend, the wrong kind of company - all these things the flesh delights in, but we know they are wickedness.  When we ask for a devout will, we are asking the Holy Spirit to uproot that stump, to cast away these evils.

You and I are saved.  Even if our wills aren't perfectly devout, we are saved.  We must not doubt our salvation because we still have the Old Adam.  He is with us until we die, but so is the Holy Spirit. It is all right to be reminded that we are sinners because God's mercy is for sinners.  Mercy is for us.  Jesus told us that when He was lifted up He would draw all men to Himself.  On the cross He said, Father, forgive them.  In Confession we hear the pastor tell us, I forgive you all your sins.  This is like reading a pardon to a condemned criminal.  You have no reason to doubt that Jesus means you.  He draws you to that cross.  It was all about you all along.  The blood flows for you.  Peter had his moment of doubt, yet the eyes of Jesus drew him to the Fountain of Life.  It is true that at that moment the rooster was a revelation of God's Law, but the look from Jesus was a revelation of the Gospel.  Peter cried bitterly.  Don't be too distracted by that.  Peter was more emotional than many of us.  Not everyone would react that way.  Faith in a penitent has a whole orchestra of reactions that it can play on.  For some it plays on the majestic pipe organ of the intellect, resulting in poetry and music.  Or it can march to the drum of the will, prompting you to take some action.  With Peter it played on the harp of the emotions, letting him cry it out.  Whatever form it takes is spiritual in the best sense.  We are all drawn to Jesus, but react to it differently.

The most important thing to remember is that Jesus has made peace with God for us.  We are all spiritual welfare cases, totally dependant on outside help for spiritual food and drink.  In Jesus we have the Fountain of Life.  Do I mean the cross?  Not the literal wooden cross, for that is long gone.  I mean the work Jesus did on the cross, the work that remains forever. Giving us devout wills is the work of the Holy Spirit, as He leads us to the cross.  He visits the heart with truth, lights the fire of love, and arms us with the shield of faith.  Make no mistake about it.  When we pray for a devout will we want a will that is happy about being devout, not one that is resigned to being devout as if that were a consolation prize.  Christ fights Satan to the death and remains the Champion.  We are asking that he draw us to Himself to be His cheering section, then return us to the world with a devout will.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

We care more about what we feed our dying bodies than what we feed our eternal souls


Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. Romans 6:3-8

Today people are more aware than ever before.  We want to know all the details about the food we eat, the cars we drive and what’s inside the latest cell phone we carry in our pockets, but when it comes to spiritual knowledge we are dull, too lethargic to learn God’s word.  Many even think that worship is optional, something a person only needs to attend on occasion, and then if he is not otherwise engaged.  Pity the poor dialysis patient who reasons that way, but is sin less deadly than kidney failure?

St. Paul wrote this section of Romans because he wants to make sure that God’s people understand the most important event of their lives, their baptism!  In it he teaches Christians about the nature and blessings of this primary sacrament, so that just as we are well-informed about the many aspects of our worldly affairs, we might be even more aware of the heritage given us in holy baptism, and evermore praise God for it.

It is safe to say that there is no more significant event in your life than the day you are born again of water and the Spirit.  A stock phrase in advertising today, whether for a new car or a new deodorant, is the phrase:  it will change your life.  Regardless of their claim, products do not do that, but baptism really does!  It changes our eternal status from sinner to saint!  We enter it spiritually dead, but emerge alive with Christ.  The transformation is not visible to the human eye so many doubt it, but for out part we will believe the simple teachings of scripture:  that baptism forgives all of our sins, delivers us from death and the devil and gives eternal life to all who believe, even as the words and promises of God declare.  St. Paul informs us that by it we are sacramentally crucified, buried and raised to newness of life with Christ, but please don’t think that the adverb “sacramentally” means that it is only symbolic or less than real.  There is nothing hazy about it.  In God’s reality baptism distributes the blessings of the cross to us, and without it we remain forever outside of God’s grace.

Defective versions of the Christian faith may speak about the death of Jesus as the source of life, joy and salvation…and so it is, but when they reject baptism they deny people access to the good news they proclaim.  Baptism is God’s delivery system, so to preach the Word without also highly prizing this life-giving bath harms as much as it helps.  Baptism makes us God’s heirs now and forever.  It comforts us in our distress so that in all the trials and temptations of life the Christian can say with confidence:  I am baptized!  I died with Christ.  I am buried with Christ.  I am raised again with Christ, and I can endure all things through Him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13)

Naomi held such a faith as this.  As an Old Testament saint she was not baptized in the conventional sense of the term, but she was baptized in fire.  For more than a decade she lived with agonizing loss and bitter disappointment.  She was forced because of famine to leave her home in Israel, and to live in the hostile land of Moab.  While there her husband died, her two sons married heathen women, and then both of them died and she was left all alone, but she was not alone!  God provided an unexpected blessing for her.  Ruth, one of her two Moabite daughters-in-law loved her, clung to her and pledged to follow her wherever she went.  She vowed to make Naomi’s people her people and Naomi’s God her God.  By these events Naomi’s life was turned from bitterness into joy, and Ruth, the heathen girl from Moab, became an ancestress of the promised Christ!

Likewise Paul Gerhardt the great hymn writer. He too was tested to the limits of human endurance and relied on the blessings of baptism to see him through.  He suffered greatly in his life from extreme poverty, poor health, the death of his wife and several of his children and persecution for his faith.  After all that he was able to sing:  My heart for joy is springing, and can no more be sad.  ‘Tis full of mirth and singing, sees naught but sunshine glad.  The Sun that cheers my spirit is Jesus Christ, my King.  The heaven I shall inherit makes me rejoice and sing.  (The Lutheran Hymnal #528,15)

The new birth does more besides:  It renders us dead in regards to sin.  It instills new impulses, new loves, new goals and new interests within us and give us the special power needed to carry them out.  It makes God’s will attractive and sin repulsive.  It gives us the power to repent when we fall prey to the devil’s temptations, and it is an objective anchor to certify that our wrongs are truly absolved.  Indeed, this sacrament is so inseparable from the cross that St. Peter writes:  baptism now saves you. (1 Peter 3:21) So we learn from this that the sacrament is not merely a means of grace, but grace itself, instituted by Christ and fueled with the power of His Word to destroy the sin within us, and give us abundant life.

Baptism also has eternal effects.  What happens to us sacramentally will also happen bodily. As Christ died we will die.  As Christ was buried we will return to the dust from which we came.  As Christ was bodily raised again from the grave we will be given a new and glorious body, one like our Lord’s own resurrected body, and in it we will spend forever in glory.  All these benefits come from the mystery that is baptism.  Like all Christian mysteries it looks unimpressive at first glance, but the more we probe it the deeper we discover it is, the less we realize that we know about it, and the more we want to drink its refreshing waters.  Nothing else quite satisfies the human mind like the Christian verities, so let us thank God for this sacrament, use it to its fullest and find comfort in it today.   Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Methodical Silencing of the Gospel

The Gospel is methodically being silenced as hate speech while doors to public facilities swing wide open to accomodate every other faith and perversion of God's good gifts. If we say that Christ lives, and that He came to seek and to save the lost, and that Christ lives in us, then we have no choice but to keep seeking and saving the lost, no matter the cost.


In the Gospel we heard today, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. In what I just read, we hear one of the earliest instances after Pentecost of how that came true. This is the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

The scene couldn't have been played any better. See the hosts of wickedness drawing up their phalanx anticipating the shock of contact as the Holy Spirit assails the Prince of this World. He was the one who hardened these peoples' hearts. They thought they were in charge, but they were just pawns in a cosmic power play. Within half an hour the highest council in Israel had been turned into a mob. In terms of today, it would be as if the U. S. Senate ran out of the capitol to lunch Billy Graham. And who was representing the Spirit? The solitary Stephen. He might have defended himself. Instead he used this window of opportunity to preach God's Word to the Jews. He preached the Law first, to convince them of their sins. He was intending to preach the Gospel if they repented, but he never got that chance. Stephen was not wrestling with flesh and blood. The Evil One was extremely active. Stephen saw that they were impenitent, so he kept on preaching the Law to warn them. He tried to show them from their history that they were working against God. But these men were possessed. They stopped their ears and shouted so as to drown out the call to repentance. So pitiful was their condition! They thought they were free men when they were Satan's slaves being whipped into a frenzy. Not only did they reject salvation, but they shouted down the message and murdered the messenger.

Now, you would have thought that they won. But God's Word tells us otherwise. God confirmed Stephen in his trial by showing him a vision. The words that describe it are a bit sketchy, but remember, "Son of Man" means the Messiah. Stephen saw Jesus. Neither was Jesus alone, for Stephen also saw "the glory of God," exactly what Moses claims to have seen in Exodus.  Moreover, Jesus was "standing at the right hand of God."   Now think back to the words of today's Gospel.  Jesus said He would convince the world of righteousness because He was going to the Father.  The council could not see the vision.  All they heard was the Law because they did not let Stephen get to preaching the Gospel.  They could not be convinced of righteousness, because they heard nothing but the Law.  They were convinced of sin.  How differently the Holy Spirit dealt with Stephen!  The Spirit gave him this vision to preach the Gospel in a very direct way.  In our Creed we say that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father.  Here, Stephen sees Him standing up, apparently coming to welcome the martyr, opening His arms to receive him.  At the end of the chapter we are told that the council members, who stripped down to their underwear so they could throw the rocks better, left their clothes with a man named Saul.   Before long the Holy Spirit would show him another vision, convince him of the righteousness of Jesus, and lead him to become the Apostle Paul.  These are two very specific cases of how the Holy Spirit carried out what Jesus had promised concerning Him.

Another promise was that the Prince of this World would be judged.  The Spirit will also convince the world of this.  We see that in the story of Stephen as well.  Look how earnestly the devil tried to stop Stephen's voice.  If he had nothing to lose by letting the Gospel be told, we would hear a lot more of it, but the Gospel is Satan's undoing.  He doesn't even want the Law to be preached because he wants you to be content in your sins.  There is nothing Satan can do to stop the preaching of the Law, because that is written on the human heart.  He can, however, harden peoples' hearts so that they never repent.  If they are content, if salvation consists of indoor plumbing and a good credit rating, then they will never hear the Gospel in all its sweetness.  We need to be made painfully aware of our lack of faith, our anxiety which displeases God, our fear of men, our lukewarm zeal.  These are words that convince us of sin.  Satan would have us get angry at God's messenger.  If we're too wise for that, he will dilute the Law, make us believe we have good excuses for our sins.  Sometimes he even quotes the Bible, as he did when he tempted Jesus.  He gives you false names for things, for example, you can refer to your pride as "self-respect," or to your envy as "social justice."  You can even refer to adulterous lust as "harmless flirtation," or Christen your cowardice as "concern for peace."  Satan's silly word games have no place in God's kingdom.  The Holy Spirit chips away this whitewash.  Hard as it is to hear this, you need to, because the good news is coming, and the worse you feel about yourself, the better that Gospel is going to sound.

After that, the Spirit wants to convince you of righteousness - not your own righteousness, but the real righteousness of Jesus Christ.  So He will tell you the story of the Innocent Lamb, who pleased God in every way, and gave Himself up to death.  Then He will show you the empty tomb, the risen Lord meeting with His friends, assuring you that death was not the end of Jesus, rather, He not only rose to life but passed through the heavens.  He wants you to know that because of Jesus God does not hold your sins against you.  Indeed, He stands with open arms waiting to receive you as He did Stephen.  The good news you are hearing now is the real sword of the Spirit, cutting through Satan's web of deceit, enlightening your souls from on high to dispel that internal darkness that is born in all of us.  The light shows us our sins, but don't turn it off, for it also shows Jesus' forgiveness.  The light shows you to be a child of God.

Nor do you need to fear the Archenemy.  Of course he is deceitful, vicious, and devious, the Prince of Chaos.  He knows there is no blessing for him, so he fights everything good, especially the Gospel.  Back in Eden he promised our mother that she would be like God knowing good and evil, but Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to make us more like God.  The Prince of this World is judged.  The consensus of the people may still favor Satan, as it did in Stephen's time.  Each of us might be a solitary voice, but if that voice is right, it will speak the truth.  Don't be fooled by appearances!  God created us and called us to believe, not to experiment.  Learn from this story that when you seem to be loneliest, God is closest; when your sight is downcast, you are close to the kingdom of God; when you are hungry for righteousness, the table is already being set.  Yes, when you think you are losing, victory is within reach.  For this we have Jesus to thank, who died for us, rose again, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, October 13, 2014

What matters in the end?


FAREWELL (August 17, 2008: after 30 years of service to God through his shepherding of the Lord's congregation at Christ Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, Pastor Gross exhorts us to continue to look only to the Word of God for all our needs.)

Our text finds the Apostle Paul saying farewell to the elders of the Church of Ephesus.  He had worked with that congregation for over a year on what we call his "third missionary journey."   They had survived the Artemis riots.  There had been some dissensions, but the time to part had come.  Paul was going to Jerusalem.  Did he think the Lord would return before he got there?  Possibly.  In any event, he knew there was personal peril in Jerusalem, but he was determined to go there, and to see James and the other apostles.  He was not looking back, but ahead.  That makes sense, because ahead is where we all have to go.  This morning I do not want to tell a history of my ministry here.  It is far more important to preach the Law and the Gospel, to feed the souls that seek spiritual nourishment here, and to commend all of you to the grace of God.

The Fall has left mankind totally blind, so that in spite of the light of truth that abounds in the world, no one can see it.  All are in darkness, except where divine revelation enlightens those who are called to be forgiven, and to mediate that forgiveness to the rest of the world. Divine revelation must not be ambiguous.  We mean Word and Sacrament, the Holy Scriptures by which all doctrine is tested, the Rule of Faith by which all Scripture is interpreted, and the proper dividing of the Law and the Gospel, by which souls are fed.  Those outside the light need to be brought into it.  Those in the light need to be built up, nourished by the Holy Spirit, and growing in holiness.  The difference is as we come into the world we are separated from God.  His revelation re-establishes the relationship with Him that He intended from the beginning.  For many years He tried to call His wayward creatures to Himself directly, but after the incident with the Tower of Babel, He chose one man, the patriarch of a chosen ethnic group, which would be the mediating ethnic group.  All families of the earth would be blessed through the Seed of Abraham.  He still loved everyone, but salvation history had turned a corner.  He would bless others through Abraham.  Then He narrowed the group Ishmael was cast out, Esau sold his birthright, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi had issues that caused Jacob to pass them by and place the promise upon Judah.  Of the sons of David, the promise came to Solomon, and thus to the royal line of Judah.  After the Exile, the line of Zerubbabel led the Righteous Remnant through whom God would bless the world.  The Remnant shrank from generation to generation until it was one man, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God.  Like Isaac, He was born according to promise, conceived in a miraculous way, and offered up by His Father as a sacrifice.  He would serve us all not by His teaching, for that was merely incidental to His work, but by making atonement for sins.  He died to make that atonement, but death could not hold Him. So the Righteous Remnant was not destroyed.  Sin was defeated.  The relationship between God and man was open once again.

Forgiveness is the key.  Once a man is forgiven, he is a new creation.  All the rest follows from forgiveness:  faith, final vindication, sanctification, and a role in mediating salvation, all come first from forgiveness.  All consume the divine love, but one who is forgiven also produces it.  So we come here before the Lord, every week, on the day God first created the light, on the day the Light of the World arose from death, on the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, the Lord's Day - with an event for each Person of the Holy Trinity to remember - we gather to seek forgiveness.  Yes, we gather for other reasons as well, but the first reason is to seek His forgiveness. Every other blessing follows from that one.

Here God places His name upon us.  As a minister, it has been my privilege to speak to this congregation the words Moses commanded 3500 years ago, directing his brother Aaron and his sons, the high priests, to bless all Israel. Our liturgy concludes with that ancient blessing. It also depends on forgiveness, because the sacrifice of the Lamb of God puts away our sin, and prepares us to be blessed. The Word of God and the Holy Eucharist which we receive make the forgiveness accessible for us, bring life and salvation even to the worst of sinners. Then, as the service is about to end, the blessing recounts for us all that God has done for us.

"The Lord bless thee and keep thee" … in Hebrew it is only three words, three is the number of God, emphasizing His presence and His love. The second person singular emphasizes that this is for each member, not just for a collective congregation.

"The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee"… in Hebrew this verse is five words, five is the number of books in the Torah, it makes us grateful for intellectual blessings, but it is also the number of pain, affliction, sorrow, the number of the wounds of Jesus.  God here reassures us that even though the rush of events has brought darkness and confusion, His face still shines.  That should remind us of our Lord's Transfiguration, a glimpse of the King in His beauty, but we also have some Law here. The light of God's face is not so friendly in Psalm 90.  Our iniquities rise up before the Lord.  Our secret sins are made manifest by the light of His face, but that light is a friendly light. As He sees us He is gracious.

"The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace"… here the Hebrew has seven words, four plus three, man plus God, and therefore the number of judgment, for when man comes before God He stands to be evaluated.  Yet it is just at that critical point that God's countenance is lifted up.  That is a very intense picture, of God's opening His eyes very wide and smiling as if seeing you was a wonderful surprise.  Yes, when He judges us, the last word is shalom, because the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, the peace He won for us is ours.

My dear friends, it is this I wish you never to forget.  My relationship with you has been wonderful, and I assure you that I will always treasure it, but a better memory still is that I could proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments among you. So you must consider of first importance not the man, but the office, the work, the ministry that continues to another generation.  And the capstone of that ministry is the liberating and enlightening Word of gGace.  Thanks to His forgiveness, you have that inheritance with the saints. Through Holy Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper, you are heirs of eternal life. Sinner-saints, you and I are alike in being sinner-saints, always needing the Law and the Gospel, even as the elders of Ephesus long ago.  And like the elders of Ephesus, we can be certain that God's grace will continue to abound among us. AMEN.

~ Reverend Lloyd E. Gross

AMEN, Brother. ~GG

Friday, October 10, 2014

Death is Imminent: Face Your Death with Confidence


As we approach the inevitable end of life, we want to look both ways, backward over our years, and forward into eternity. That’s the position in which we find St. Paul as he writes this last of his letters. In a few days he would put his head on the executioner’s block, another Christian scapegoat for Nero’s fire. He remember Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia – places he visited on his first missionary journey. He also thought about what happened on the road to Damascus some 30 years earlier. As he looks back he tells the young bishop I have fought the good fight, I have run my race, I have kept the faith.

The word "kept" is not strong enough. Paul guarded the faith, that is the Christian faith, with his life.  In our time the tendency is to put all beliefs into a single basket.  If Paul had believed that, Europe would never have been evangelized, but Paul guarded the faith – from mixtures of Law and Gospel, from the Judaizers and the antinomians, from Gnostics and Pneumatics, from party spirit and schism.  What was his creed?  Like ours, that the natural man is hostile to God, that God acted to redeem the world through Jesus Christ, that God forgives people because of Jesus, and that Jesus was coming again to judge the world.  He did not invent these doctrines.  He "kept" them.  There was no false optimism, none of that nonsense about not mattering what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  In Peanuts, Linus sincerely believes in the Great Pumpkin.  Every year at Halloween his sincerity is disappointed.  We need to raise the banner with bright red letters that says Yes, sincerity has its place, but what really matters is that you are right.  That was what allowed Paul to face death with confidence.

His faith is our faith as well.  We have the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Holy Sacraments.  We can think of that as a great bank account which God has opened in our name.  When we were baptized He invested us with unlimited capital, an inexhaustible trust fund of forgiveness, mercy, and grace.  On top of that we have the on-going means of grace as a kind of regular income.  He has given us a church that insists on clarity, on a thorough-going system of doctrine that accounts for what God has revealed to us.

That investment was worth everything to Paul.  The last chapter in his life was about to be punctuated, but what does he say? Any regrets? No. He says The time for my release is at hand.  Paul was about to be promoted from servant of servants to royalty.  He had given up power and prestige for the Gospel.  He had labored long in the Lord’s vineyard.  His travels were often perilous.  There were many who hated him.  Was it worth it?  Of course.  As Paul contemplated the day of his martyrdom, he considered it his coronation.

Notice here the metaphors Paul chooses.  Paul does not say, "My ship is coasting into its final port."  None of that talk of an effortless passage.  No, he talks of wrestling, running hard, expending considerable energy.  He faced tough competition.  So must we.  There are voices, even within the Church, that deny that our Lord really rose from the dead.  There are those who say Jesus taught the way of salvation, rather than that He was the way.  Some say that unbelievers can please God.  I don’t have to tell you about this sentiment, it is everywhere.  But it’s wrong.  Try to fight it in a group of people and you will feel very alone.  As Paul stood on Mars Hill looking out over a sea of pagans, learned philosophers, and emperor worshippers, so we look at all kinds of unbelievers, from uncritical optimists to witches, from irresponsible libertarians to agents of the totalitarian state.  We are among the few who take the Biblical message seriously.  Most are satisfied with mediocrity.  We cannot be.  There is perfection in the cross of Jesus, which we can never let go.  That perfection is our perfection.

God invites us to pray.  Some churches teach that prayer is a means of grace.  It is not.  Prayer puts nothing into our account.  It is the set of checks that draw out the mercy and kindness of God for specific needs in our lives.  We can draw on the perfection of the cross, apply the power and grace to ourselves and our neighbors.  The account is limitless.  Jesus fills it, true God and true Man, who loved us and gave Himself for us.  We can draw on the promises that assure us that whatever we do a crown is laid up for each of us, awaiting the day when God will crown us with it.  Why?  Because He loves us, my friends.  You have not chosen Him;  He has chosen you.  That’s all the better, isn’t it, because if it is God’s choice that matters, then there is no way we could bungle the job.

Compared to the Apostle Paul, our zeal is quite mediocre.  For three generations now few have stood to defend the true faith, but you have the Holy Spirit.  He was a baptismal gift. You can spend yourself in goodness because you can draw on the mercy of God in Jesus.  Don’t try to rush the day of your discharge.  Fight on, never doubting that your account is sufficient when you need to draw on it.  You have no debt that cannot be paid by the death of God’s Son.  Sincerity does not save anyone.  That doesn’t mean God wants you to be insincere.  Sincerity is a good work, but, like all good works, it has no value before God.  As you look into eternity, what stands over your head is God’s promise to save you.  If you mean that, then let your life show it now.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How much time do we really have to indulge the flesh?


Watch carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15

The world is very evil, but we did not always think so.  We used to think that adults were in charge, dedicated people, doing rational things for the benefit of their fellow man.  That was before 24 hour news coverage.  Now we know that those who are supposed to be the “brightest and best” among us have the emotional maturity of 6 year old children on the playground who call one another nasty names and blame each other for the messes they themselves make.  In the mean time the world is crashing, but don’t despair, dear Christians, because this is nothing new!

Two thousand years ago Paul told the Christians in Ephesus to be wise and to redeem the time because the days are evil.  Why does Paul say that?  Was he just having a bad day?  Hardly.  He says it because it is true.  He says it because the devil wants us to think otherwise, to believe that planet earth is a good place, that can be made even better if we will just forget about Christ and fall down and worship him.  He says it because the world wants us to approve whatever it “values” at the moment and never to question its wisdom, but that is the road to perdition, and he speaks this way because he knows that our Old Adam is foolish enough to believe anything that promises it a good time, starting immediately!

After 2,000 years Paul’s advice is still good.  He might say it a little differently today but the gist would be the same.  Today he might say, “Don’t believe the bald-faced lies served up each day in the cafeterias of public opinion, public education and public service.”  The days are still evil.  The Christian faith which once informed western culture now meets strong resistance.  Biblical morality which taught fallen man a new way to live is now scorned.  Knowledge has given way to superstition, reason to emotion, science to voodoo, and civilized behavior to disorderly conduct in every sphere of life.

Are such sins too distant or vague for us to appreciate?  If so, we only need to examine our lives in the mirror of God’s Law where we will quickly discover that we are part of the problem; confirmed members of the sinful world whose chief motto is eat, drink and be merry, who never sober up long enough to hear the voice of Jesus saying: thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee. (Luke 12:20 KJV)  When Paul told the Ephesians: don’t be drunk with wine he said it because there was a problem.  His congregation, influenced by the pagan world that surrounded them, were living like sots.  Wine is still a problem today, not its use but its abuse.  It is one of God’s good gifts, but like every other blessing it should be received with thanksgiving and used in moderation.  Sobriety is a Christian virtue, intoxication is a sin!  It isn’t only alcohol that can make us drunk.  We can become intoxicated by a variety of drugs, and making them illegal doesn’t lessen the problem.  Nor is it only these that can inebriate us.  We can become drunk with power, drunk with rage, drunk with envy, revenge, lust; self-pity, self-love and self-congratulations.  Yes, the world is very evil so St. Paul instructs God’s people to “redeem the time.”  But how do we do that?

First by believing that Christ redeemed all things by His death on the cross, and reconciled us to God by His blood.  It purifies us from every fault, and cancels out the wages of our sins.

We redeem the time when we heed Paul’s command to be wise; or stated another way, when we gladly learn God’s Word which is the font of all wisdom, and source of all truth.  The Bible is the book that makes us wise unto salvation which is through faith in Christ Jesus the Lord; who is our wisdom, righteousness and sanctification.  To be wise the way Paul says, means to hunger and thirst after divine knowledge, to treasure His commandments and to order our lives according to them rather than to the sinful pleasures of the flesh.

We redeem the time when we heed Paul’s command: don’t be intoxicated with wine, but be filled with the Spirit. We learn in the 104th psalm that God made wine to make glad the heart of man (v.15). But wine’s most perfect use, the one that makes us gladdest of all, is when it becomes the blood of Christ in holy communion. For many Christians this is too much to swallow, but why should it be? If Jesus can convert water into wine, why can He not change wine into His blood? In this most superb of all miracles our omnipotent Lord consecrates bread and makes it His true body, consecrates wine and makes it His true blood, and then gives it to His Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of their sins, for life and salvation.

What is at one time ordinary wine becomes by Christ’s Word the medicine of immortality that makes us as supremely glad; glad because we know that Christ put our sins into remission and that we will live forever; glad because no matter how bad this crazy, mixed up world becomes – and it can get very crazy – that Jesus will be with us through it all, and in the end make all things new.

We redeem the time when we address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and when we give God thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here St. Paul describes Christian worship! The best hours we will spend are the ones spent in God’s House, singing new songs of praise to the Christ who is the Song of Songs.

It is true that there is no mightier force on earth than God’s Word. It creates life, redeems us from sin, gives hope to the despairing and good cheer to the forlorn. But when that Word is combined with the church’s inspired music then what is dynamic becomes nuclear! Parabolic! Potent enough to snatch us from the power of darkness, and induct us into the heavenly choir where we will sing thanks to God and to the Lamb for all things, for all eternity. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The miracles of Jesus are not magic


This media file is in the public domain in the United States
When the ancient Greeks first heard this Gospel story they certainly thought about Bacchus, one of their many gods, who was known for doing what Jesus did. The trouble was, Bacchus never had a good reason for doing so. Bacchus was a fertility god. The Greeks worshipped him in order to use magic, to get some kind of supernatural control over their agriculture. For the Greeks, the gods were neither respected nor trusted. They were only there to be used. That was the basic infrastructure of Paganism. And it comes from the Fall. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge meant that people would try to know what was good or evil for themselves instead of knowing and trusting God.

Our Lord's mighty miracles were actions of order, not of chaos. Most of His miracles were doing quickly what God the Father normally does much more slowly. This was that kind of miracle. All wine is made from water. Usually it takes a long time for the combined natural and artificial process to make it into wine. Jesus took a shortcut because His host was in great need. The Bible tells us that there were pots for purification in the house - religious vessels the Jews used for washing before they sat down to eat. So for the first of His signs Jesus used two things -- plain, ordinary water and Jewish religious hardware. He did this at a wedding to remind us that God was with man in Eden. Here was one man who was not fallen. God was walking with His people. In the language of Revelation: Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.

Many of Jesus' miracles were of this type. Eventually the storm would have stopped, the human body would heal itself, the disciples would have caught all those fish. Jesus had good reasons for speeding it up. We can't take the same shortcuts, but that does not make them unnatural. After all, making the sun shine is beyond our power, but we don't call the sun unnatural. If Buddha had done these miracles we might well be skeptical, because he taught that material things were bad. But Jesus taught that material things were God's gifts to be prayed for daily and received with thanks. He did other kinds of miracles as well -- like exorcisms, and things that belong to the next life, like walking on the water and raising the dead. In the second kind He showed that He was more powerful than death or the devil. The prophets of Israel had predicted that the Messiah would raise the dead. Jesus obliged.

When we ask Jesus for blessings we don't usually mean that we expect miracles. We normally expect our prayers to be answered through the channels of Providence. As long as our faith is strong, this works just fine. We want God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But when our faith is weak we get anxious. Our back is against the wall. We find that we just can't be patient. The normal way is too slow, so we start looking for a Bacchus. We want supernatural help of our own choosing. We don't want to serve Bacchus, of course, quite the contrary. We want Bacchus to serve us. Nor do we call him by that name. We probably turn first to the Prince of Technology. He is a safe demon, one that everybody else calls on. We don't want to get too high in the infernal hierarchy. We never want to lose control of the situation, which would happen if we tried to do business with them or powerful Evil Ones.

I am not saying that all technology is bad. Technology wavers in a blurred area between our stewardship of Providence and a rather patient form of elementary witchcraft. It has given us vaccines; and it has given us atomic bombs. If we enter upon our use of technology with prayer, dedicate its fruits to God, and be content with our daily bread, we can use technology to the glory of God. But look out! The further we stray from that pattern, the more diabolical it gets. Some people are too impatient for technology. They want fast magic, which means they seek chaos. The irony of it is, those who wish to be God move further and further from their rightful thrones as His children until they are out of reach forever.

There are cynical people who confuse prayer with superstition. Consider Herod in the Passion story. He wanted Jesus to put on a magic show, to abuse His divine power to entertain Herod's guests. Bacchus would certainly have done that. The Gospel tells us that Jesus would not even speak to Herod. So it is for those who want to use Jesus instead of genuinely interacting with Him. Don't imitate Herod! Jesus wants you to come up from Paganism to faith, from using the gods to trusting the Lord. When you behold the Winemaker of Cana, don't picture Bacchus incarnate preparing for a wild night in the hills. Think of Jehovah incarnate, doing quickly what He usually does at length. He is not a sinner. That is what we needed above all, a blameless, sinless Substitute. He is the Lamb without blemish who made perfect atonement. He is Immanuel, repairing the damage of the Fall, coming down to walk with his creatures who could not rise to walk with Him. He is not Moses bringing us another Law. Moses turned water into blood to serve God's Law. Jesus comes in grace, giving us access to the Father in heaven. Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.

This has consequences when we consider how to worship Jesus. If He is like Bacchus, then we might want to "get high on Him," as some claim to do today, to worship in irrational ways so that we feel more important than we are. Remember this is the God who gave us commandments. Worship Him with mind and heart -- humble mind and contrite heart. Be sure the heart is broken and contrite. We have sins to confess. We seek His forgiveness. Take hold of His teachings, remember His victory. Stay connected to Him by Word and Sacrament.

This also has consequences as to how we consider the natural world. If Jesus is like Bacchus, we'll just keep on inventing more and more technology to exploit our fellow creatures, particularly our fellow men. But if Jesus is Jehovah, then we will use our reason and knowledge to bless our fellow creatures, particularly our fellow men. He is our example here. He refused to turn stones into bread, but He multiplied loaves in the desert. So when we learn of a new machine, we should ask ourselves does this turn stones into bread, or does it multiply loaves? Avoid the first kind. The second is probably doing the Lord's work. We need to learn to wait. One day He will enthrone us as kings and queens. That's what He wants to do. It is enough now to walk with Him as He walks with us, present in His Church as He was in Cana long ago. The wine He provides for us is His own blood, which cleanses us from all sin. The bread He provides is His body, crucified, dead, and resurrected. Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Recognizing the natural enemies of a fruitful harvest


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“…the good soil represents those who hear the Word, hold it fast in a good and honest heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” Luke 8:15

When we hear this parable it’s natural to wonder which type of soil we are. On the one hand we know that we are children of God by faith in Jesus Christ, so we can only be the Good Soil in the parable, but as Christians we are also intensely aware of our sins, so we wonder.

In the face of any possible doubts, however, please know that we are the “good and honest hearts” in which the Gospel has taken root! Not because of our stellar behavior to be sure, but because “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us,” and because in the sacrament of holy baptism God’s Word took up residence in our hearts.

Yes, we are the good soil, but if we consider the forces that conspire against us it is a wonder to behold! According to the Lord’s parable there are five natural enemies of faith.

Faith’s first enemy is the devil whom the Bible calls a thief. Whenever the word of God is preached the devil becomes alarmed. He doesn’t want to lose what he considers his own property so he steals the Word from under us lest we believe it, become reconciled to God by faith in Jesus, produce a harvest of good fruits and be saved. Yet, here we are in God’s House.

Faith’s second enemy is the troubles of life. When adversity comes Christians pray, but sometimes it seems as though God doesn’t hear us and isn’t going to help us, so we wonder. St. Paul had this problem, too. He was a highly gifted man who stood head and shoulders above the rest. Not only did he have exceptional talents but he was given elite theological revelations, and even permitted to get a glimpse into the lower realms of heaven where he saw sights and heard sounds beyond human telling! However, greatness always comes with a price. He reports in 2 Cor 12:8 that in order to keep him from becoming conceited God gave him “a thorn in the flesh,” a “messenger from satan" to make his labor harder than it already was. He reports further that he “pleaded with the Lord three times to remove it,” but the only answer he got, the best answer there is, and the one in which we can find much comfort today was this: My grace is sufficient for you! My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is most perfectly understood in your weakness. Few of us have suffered like Paul but we have all had to deal with adversities which test our faith. At times like this we wonder if God is able to sustain us or if we should look for comfort elsewhere than to Jesus. Yet, here we are; still in God’s House.

The third natural enemy of faith is the cares of the world. The business of living consumes us. It’s not easy to grow up, find a path in life and then spend what seems like endless decades laboring away to make ends meet and hold it all together. These things can so consume us that we have little energy left for eternal things. Yet, here we are in God’s House.

The fourth enemy of faith is the pursuit of riches. Money is like a god to us, the more we have the happier we are and the more secure we feel about everything. However, the Bible warns us against such a belief. In 1 Timothy St. Paul writes that, “…those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Yet still, here we are in God’s House.

The fifth natural enemy of faith is the pursuit of pleasure. Unlike Moses who, “chose to suffer affliction with the people of God, rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season,” we are mightily tempted by the world around us to make fun, relaxation and pleasant living our god. Yet in spite of many obstacles, here we are in God’s House, good and honest hearts, made so by faith in the only One who is truly Good and Honest, Jesus our Lord.

The lavish generosity of God brought us here, and keeps us here, and that’s because He doesn’t do things the way men do. In an agrarian society seed was money, it was precious capital which was never to be wasted, never to be mal-invested, but always to be put to the best possible use. No man in his right mind would do what the Sower did in the parable, but when the Sower is God everything changes because there are no limits to His mercy. He never stops sowing until His Word finally takes root in our hard and thorny hearts, and fills them with faith in Jesus.

Faith that gladly hears God’s Law, which though painful, serves as the plow needed to bury our intense love of pleasure and ease. Faith that especially believes the Gospel, that the Good and Honest Son of God shed His blood to cleanse us from our sin, so that we might be declared Good and Honest by the Judge of all the earth – not by our works but by faith in the Beautiful Savior. However, such hearts don’t sit idlely by any more than good seed planted in good ground! Instead, faith produces a harvest of good fruit. It leads us to fear, love and trust in God above all things, and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, which is a lot, although trying love our neighbor today is a tricky business. The world’s catechism has so confused charity with socialism that helping someone may do more harm than good, and this is not love! Therefore we must bring forth our fruit not only with patience as the parable teaches, but also with much thought and intelligence.

No, it’s never easy, but neither is there any need to worry or become anxious because in spite of the many obstacles, struggles and difficult decisions we face as God’s children we are the Good Soil in which God’s eternal Word makes its home. He will lead us, will guide us and keep us by His Word. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras